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Refreshed Dream optimistic for upcoming WNBA season

Angel McCoughtry sat out last WNBA season to rest physically and mentally. It's going to be a great team [this year]," she said. "We've got some new pieces." Gary Dineen/Getty Images

The Atlanta Dream have been around for a decade. They've knocked on the door of being a champion, and -- other than a 4-30 inaugural season -- have never been really bad.

New coach Nicki Collen hopes to get Atlanta to take that one last step to a title. And she has two primary goals for the Dream to achieve this season.

"I want to be the best defensive team in the league, and I want to play the fastest," said Collen, who was hired this past October. "Defensively, I'm not going to measure that by points per game. Because if we're driving up possessions, that's not a good measurement. It's field goal percentage defense, it's turnover margin, and things like that.

"I want to play a certain way, but I inherited a team with certain strengths. It's about meshing the two."

And it's about finding the right combination of skills around Dream star guard/forward Angel McCoughtry and making sure the chemistry works. McCoughtry is back after sitting out last WNBA season to rest.

Drafted at No. 1 in 2009, McCoughtry has been the primary face of the organization in a similar way to what Sue Bird (Seattle) and Diana Taurasi (Phoenix) have been as No. 1 picks. But unlike the other two, she doesn't have a WNBA title. The Dream lost three times in the WNBA Finals: in 2010 to Bird's Storm, and in 2011 and '13 to Minnesota.

McCoughtry is coming off a third-place finish with Dynamo Kursk in the EuroLeague Final Four championship. Ideally, the Dream will benefit from their other players' growth while McCoughtry wasn't on court last summer.

"With Angel out, a lot of us had different roles to play," said center/forward Elizabeth Williams, who led the Dream in rebounds (7.2 per game) and blocked shots (2.0) in 2017, plus averaged 10.4 points. "Every year, I've gotten better -- including vocally and feeling more confident. I think it makes it more exciting, to have that confidence coming in, and knowing we have such a great veteran coming back."

Williams, guard Tiffany Hayes (team-high 16.3 PPG) and point guard Layshia Clarendon (10.7 PPG, 6.6 APG) were All-Stars last season, and they played for the U.S. national team in its exhibition victory over China last week. Guard Brittney Sykes (13.9 PPG) made a strong run at rookie of the year honors.

They return as starters, but two players who also started double-digit games are gone: Forward Sancho Lyttle signed with Phoenix, and wing Bria Holmes, who'll miss this season because of pregnancy, was traded to Connecticut for second-round picks in the 2018 and '19 drafts.

Despite some of the players' personal growth and success, the Dream were 12-22 last year, their worst record since that inaugural season in 2008. They missed the playoffs, and Michael Cooper was let go after four seasons as coach.

McCoughtry watched it all from afar, acknowledging that the rest she needed wasn't just physical but mental, as well. She tried to disengage from what Atlanta was doing in 2017.

"I had to," she said. "If you don't, you won't come back fresh. I'm happy to come back. In the past, it's been tough because we didn't have the talent we do now. It's going to be a great team. We've got some new pieces."

McCoughtry was referring to the signings of veteran free agents Renee Montgomery and Jessica Breland, who bring high-quality depth at point guard and power forward. Those were positions Collen and general manager Chris Sienko, who joined the Dream this past November, targeted in the offseason.

"When I talked to our players, they knew we needed shooters and the team played without a backup point guard last year," Collen said, knowing Montgomery fills both those roles. "We wanted to build our bench.

"We've got two of the most explosive athletes in our league in Angel and Brittney. I think they can be on the court together, and we can play a lot of different ways. Both of them are dynamic scorers, but both can also be tremendous facilitators."

In fact, Collen thinks that McCoughtry could be a triple-double threat.

"I think she's been forced to make a lot of plays and take a lot of tough shots," Collen said. "The beauty of Angel is she makes a lot of those tough shots, and she has the confidence to take them. But I'd like to put her in situations where she's not forced to take so many."

Collen spent the past two seasons as an assistant to Curt Miller with the Connecticut Sun. But she knew all the pluses and minuses when she took the Atlanta job; during her time with the Sun, she was the team's primary scout of the Dream.

The pluses were many, including all the aforementioned returning players. One minus was not having a first-round draft pick. A July 2017 trade sent Atlanta's 2018 first-round selection and Jordan Hooper to Chicago for Imani McGee-Stafford, Tamera Young and a 2018 second-round pick.

The Dream still didn't make the postseason, and gave up what turned into a lottery pick, with which the Sky took Diamond DeShields at No. 3. Young signed in February with Las Vegas. Six-foot-7 center McGee-Stafford, who was the Sky's No. 10 pick in the 2016 draft, played 10 games for the Dream last year, averaging 2.9 points in 9.0 minutes.

Still, the Dream made the most of the draft. They selected two forwards -- UCLA's Monique Billings in the second round (with the pick from the Holmes trade) and Georgia's Mackenzie Engram in the third -- in hopes they can bolster Atlanta's inside game if they make the roster. The other pick (from the trade with the Sky) was for the future, as Atlanta took Baylor point guard Kristy Wallace in the second round, even though she will not play this season because of an ACL injury in February.

This is Collen's first head-coaching job, but she has been thinking about being in this role for a long time. Before joining the Sun in 2016, she was a college assistant at Florida Gulf Coast, Arkansas, Louisville, Ball State and Colorado State.

In contrast to Cooper's more laid-back yet at times acerbic coaching and communicating style, Collen comes to the Dream as an optimistic bundle of energy. It's easier to have those qualities, of course, before going through the grind of a season.

But the Dream players all seem ready for the new regime, and the hopes that come with it.

"The sun has come out," is how McCoughtry puts it. "Nicki has brightened things up a bit."